Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
On the Year of Release. - The first two regulations in this chapter, viz., Deu 15:1-11 and Deu 15:12-18, follow simply upon the law concerning the poor tithe in Deu 14:28-29. The Israelites were not only to cause those who had no possessions (Levites, strangers, widows, and orphans) to refresh themselves with the produce of their inheritance, but they were not to force and oppress the poor. Debtors especially were not to be deprived of the blessings of the sabbatical year (Deu 15:1-6). "At the end of seven years thou shalt make a release." The expression, "at the end of seven years," is to be understood in the same way as the corresponding phrase, "at the end of three years," in Deu 14:28. The end of seven years, i.e., of the seven years' cycle formed by the sabbatical year, is mentioned as the time when debts that had been contracted were usually wiped off or demanded, after the year's harvest had been gathered in (cf. Deu 31:10, according to which the feast of Tabernacles occurred at the end of the year). שׁמטּה, from שׁמט morf ,, to let lie, to let go (cf. Exo 23:11), does not signify a remission of the debt, the relinquishing of all claim for payment, as Philo and the Talmudists affirm, but simply lengthening the term, not pressing for payment. This is the explanation in Deu 15:2 : "This is the manner of the release" (shemittah): cf. Deu 19:4; Kg1 9:15. "Every owner of a loan of his hand shall release (leave) what he has lent to his neighbour; he shall not press his neighbour, and indeed his brother; for they have proclaimed release for Jehovah." As שׁמוט (release) points unmistakeably back to Exo 23:11, it must be interpreted in the same manner here as there. And as it is not used there to denote the entire renunciation of a field or possession, so here it cannot mean the entire renunciation of what had been lent, but simply leaving it, i.e., not pressing for it during the seventh year. This is favoured by what follows, "thou shalt not press thy neighbour," which simply forbids an unreserved demand, but does not require that the debt should be remitted or presented to the debtor (see also Bhr, Symbolik, ii. pp. 570-1). "The loan of the hand:" what the hand has lent to another. "The master of the loan of the hand:" i.e., the owner of a loan, the lender. "His brother" defines with greater precision the idea of "a neighbour." Calling a release, presupposes that the sabbatical year was publicly proclaimed, like the year of jubilee (Lev 25:9). קרא is impersonal ("they call"), as in Gen 11:9 and Gen 16:14. "For Jehovah:" i.e., in honour of Jehovah, sanctified to Him, as in Exo 12:42. - This law points back to the institution of the sabbatical year in Exo 23:10; Lev 25:2-7, though it is not to be regarded as an appendix to the law of the sabbatical year, or an expansion of it, but simply as an exposition of what was already implied in the main provision of that law, viz., that the cultivation of the land should be suspended in the sabbatical year. If no harvest was gathered in, and even such produce as had grown without sowing was to be left to the poor and the beasts of the field, the landowner could have no income from which to pay his debts. The fact that the "sabbatical year" is not expressly mentioned, may be accounted for on the ground, that even in the principal law itself this name does not occur; and it is simply commanded that every seventh year there was to be a sabbath of rest to the land (Lev 25:4). In the subsequent passages in which it is referred to (Deu 15:9 and Deu 31:10), it is still not called a sabbatical year, but simply the "year of release," and that not merely with reference to debtors, but also with reference to the release (Shemittah) to be allowed to the field (Exo 23:11).
The foreigner thou mayest press, but what thou hast with thy brother shall thy hand let go. נכרי is a stranger of another nation, standing in no inward relation to Israel at all, and is to be distinguished from גּר, the foreigner who lived among the Israelites, who had a claim upon their protection and pity. This rule breathes no hatred of foreigners, but simply allows the Israelites the right of every creditor to demand his debts, and enforce the demand upon foreigners, even in the sabbatical year. There was no severity in this, because foreigners could get their ordinary income in the seventh year as well as in any other.
"Only that there shall be no poor with thee." יהיה is jussive, like the foregoing imperfects. The meaning in this connection is, "Thou needest not to remit a debt to foreigners in the seventh year; thou hast only to take care that there is no poor man with or among thee, that thou dost not cause or increase their poverty, by oppressing the brethren who have borrowed of thee." Understood in this way, the sentence is not at all at variance with Deu 15:11, where it is stated that the poor would never cease out of the land. The following clause, "for Jehovah will bless thee," etc., gives a reason for the main thought, that they were not to press the Israelitish debtor. The creditor, therefore, had no need to fear that he would suffer want, if he refrained from exacting his debt from his brother in the seventh year.
This blessing would not fail, if the Israelites would only hearken to the voice of the Lord; "for Jehovah blesseth thee" (by the perfect בּרכך, the blessing is represented not as a possible and future one only, but as one already bestowed according to the counsel of God, and, so far as the commencement was concerned, already fulfilled), "as He hath spoken" (see at Deu 1:11). "And thou wilt lend on pledge to many nations, but thou thyself wilt not borrow upon pledge." עבט, a denom. verb, from עבוט, a pledge, signifies in Kal to give a pledge for the purpose of borrowing; in Hiphil, to cause a person to give a pledge, or furnish occasion for giving a pledge, i.e., to lend upon pledge. "And thou wilt rule over many nations," etc. Ruling is mentioned here as the result of superiority in wealth (cf. Deu 28:1 : Schultz).
And in general Israel was to be ready to lend to the poor among its brethren, not to harden its heart, to be hard-hearted, but to lend to the poor brother מחסרו דּי, "the sufficiency of his need," whatever he might need to relieve his wants.
Thus they were also to beware "that there was not a word in the heart, worthlessness," i.e., that a worthless thought did not arise in their hearts (בּליּעל is the predicate of the sentence, as the more precise definition of the word that was in the heart); so that one should say, "The seventh year is at hand, the year of release," sc., when I shall not be able to demand what I have lent, and "that thine eye be evil towards thy poor brother," i.e., that thou cherishest ill-will towards him (cf. Deu 28:54, Deu 28:56), "and givest him not, and he appeals to Jehovah against thee, and it becomes sin to thee," sc., which brings down upon thee the wrath of God.
Thou shalt give him, and thy heart shall not become evil, i.e., discontented thereat (cf. Co2 9:7), for Jehovah will bless thee for it (cf. Pro 22:9; Pro 28:27; Psa 41:2; Mat 6:4).
For the poor will never cease in the land, even the land that is richly blessed, because poverty is not only the penalty of sin, but is ordained by God for punishment and discipline.
These provisions in favour of the poor are followed very naturally by the rules which the Israelites were to be urged to observe with reference to the manumission of Hebrew slaves. It is not the reference to the sabbatical year in the foregoing precepts which forms the introduction to the laws which follow respecting the manumission of Hebrews who had become slaves, but the poverty and want which compelled Hebrew men and women to sell themselves as slaves. The seventh year, in which they were to be set free, is not the same as the sabbatical year, therefore, but the seventh year of bondage. Manumission in the seventh year of service had already been commanded in Exo 21:2-6, in the rights laid down for the nation, with special reference to the conclusion of the covenant. This command is not repeated here for the purpose of extending the law to Hebrew women, who are not expressly mentioned in Ex 21; for that would follow as a matter of course, in the case of a law which was quite as applicable to women as to men, and was given without any reserve to the whole congregation. It is rather repeated here as a law which already existed as a right, for the purpose of explaining the true mode of fulfilling it, viz., that it was not sufficient to give a man-servant and maid-servant their liberty after six years of service, which would not be sufficient relief to those who had been obliged to enter into slavery on account of poverty, if they had nothing with which to set up a home of their own; but love to the poor was required to do more than this, namely, to make some provision for the continued prosperity of those who were set at liberty. "If thou let him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go (send him away) empty:" this was the new feature which Moses added here to the previous law. "Thou shalt load (העניק, lit., put upon the neck) of thy flock, and of thy floor (corn), and of thy press (oil and wine); wherewith thy God hath blessed thee, of that thou shalt give to him."
They were to be induced to do this by the recollection of their own redemption out of the bondage of Egypt, - the same motive that is urged for the laws and exhortations enjoining compassion towards foreigners, servants, maids, widows, orphans, and the poor, not only in Deu 5:15; Deu 10:19; Deu 16:12; Deu 24:18, Deu 24:22, but also in Exo 22:20; Exo 23:9, and Lev 19:34.
But if the man-servant and the maid-servant should not wish for liberty in the sixth year, because it was well with them in the house of their master, they were not to be compelled to go, but were to be bound to eternal, i.e., lifelong bondage, in the manner prescribed in Exo 21:5-6.
(Note: Knobel's assertion, that the judicial process enjoined in Exo 21:6 does not seem to have been usual in the author's own time, is a worthless argumentum e silentio.)
This is repeated from Ex 21, to guard against such an application of the law as might be really cruelty under the circumstances rather than love. Manumission was only an act of love, when the person to be set free had some hope of success and of getting a living for himself; and where there was no such prospect, compelling him to accept of freedom might be equivalent to thrusting him away.
If, on the other hand, the servant (or maid) wished to be set free, the master was not to think it hard; "for the double of the wages of a day-labourer he has earned for thee for six years," i.e., not "twice the time of a day-labourer, so that he had really deserved twice the wages" (Vatablius, Ad. Osiander, J. Gerhard), for it cannot be proved from Isa 16:14, that a day-labourer generally hired himself out for three years; nor yet, "he has been obliged to work much harder than a day-labourer, very often by night as well as day" (Clericus, J. H. Michaelis, Rosenmller, Baumgarten); but simply, "he has earned and produced so much, that if you had been obliged to keep a day-labourer in his place, it would have cost you twice as much" (Schultz, Knobel).
Application of the first-born of Cattle. - From the laws respecting the poor and slaves, to which the instructions concerning the tithes (Deu 14:22-29) had given occasion, Moses returns to appropriation of the first-born of the herd and flock to sacrificial meals, which he had already touched upon in Deu 12:6, Deu 12:17, and Deu 14:23, and concludes by an explanation upon this point. The command, which the Lord had given when first they came out of Egypt (Exo 13:2, Exo 13:12), that all the first-born of the herd and flock should be sanctified to Him, is repeated here by Moses, with the express injunction that they were not to work with the first-born of cattle (by yoking them to the plough or waggon), and not to shear the first-born of sheep; that is to say, they were not to use the first-born animals which were sanctified to the Lord for their own earthly purposes, but to offer them year by year as sacrifices to the Lord, and consume them in sacrificial meals. To this he adds (Deu 15:21, Deu 15:22) that further provision, that first-born animals, which were blind or lame, or had any other bad fault, were not to be offered in sacrifice to the Lord, but, like ordinary animals used for food, could be eaten in all the towns of the land. Although the first part of this law was involved in the general laws as to the kind of animal that could be offered in sacrifice (Lev 22:19.), it was by no means unimportant to point out distinctly their applicability to the first-born, and add some instructions with regard to the way in which they were to be applied. (On Deu 15:22 and Deu 15:23, see Deu 12:15 and Deu 12:16.)